Homonyms are words grouped together because they either sound the same, or are spelt the same, but have different meanings. Although common usage relies on the term homonym to describe all these varieties, in actual fact there are really three categories of words to describe them:

  • Homograph — same spelling (as written down); different meaning (sometimes sounds the same).
  • Homonym — same word (same sound and same spelling); different meaning.
  • Homophone — same sound (always a different spelling); different meaning.

A true homophone is a word that sounds the same, is spelt the same, but has a different meaning. Dictionaries will variously state that homographs and homophones are also forms of homonyms. While not strictly true, I have to ask whether the distinction is really worth worrying about. However, for what it’s worth, going back to the original Greek, this is what the words really mean:

The Greek word homo means “same”; the Greek word graph means “written”; the Greek word nym means “word”; the Greek word phone means “sound”. Put all this together and you have: “same written” (homograph); “same word” (homonym); and “same sound” (homophone). The common thread here is that they all have different meanings. Despite this some words fall into two categories, which makes for a number of pedantic issues. And though each type is slightly different, common usage —quite sensibly — is to refer to them collectively as “homonyms”.

Here are a few random examples:

Feat, feet, and fete
  • Feat – notable act or deed.
  • Feet – plural of foot; a measure.
  • Fete – a festival
Hole and whole
  • There was a hole in the ground. (an opening)
  • Use a whole number. He ate the whole cake. (the entire amount)
Know and now
  • I know what to do. I knew what to do. (having knowledge)
  • You will do it now. (not later)
  • The car is new. (not old)
Quite, quiet and quit
  • It was quite cold at night.
  • It was very quiet.
  • He quit his job and went to America.
Through and threw
  • We went through the tunnel.
  • John threw the ball to me. (past tense of throw)
To, Too and two
  • I went to town. I want to help.
  • Too many, too few, too hot.
  • You can come too. (meaning as well)
  • You, too, are allowed to come. (meaning you as well)
  • You two are allowed to come. (referring to both of you)
Weather and whether
  • The bad weather was a problem. (rainy, stormy, etc.)
  • I don’t know whether he will help me. (meaning if)
Which and witch
  • The book, which was torn, had to be replaced.
  • The witch rode on her broom.
Wear, were and where
  • I am going to wear a jacket.
  • There were seven of them.
  • Where are you going?
More examples

Here are some examples of words that sound the same but are spelt differently. And they have different meanings.

Caw, Core, Corps

Complement Compliment

Doe, Doh, Dough

Ewe, Yew, You

Feat, Feet

Flew, Flu, Flue

For, Fore, Four

Heal, Heel, He’ll

Lent, Lent

Meat, Meet, Mete

Pair, Pare, Pear

Pole and pole

Rain, Rein, Reign

Raise, Rays, Raze

Right, Rite, Write

Rose, Rose* and Rows

Row, row and row‡

Stalk and Stalk

Stationary, Stationery

Straighten, Straiten

Toe, Tow

Too, Two

Wail, Wale, Whale

Wound and Wound

*The flower, rose; and rose, the past of “to rise”.

‡Each meaning respectively: to argue; to row a boat; a row of houses.

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By Nigel Benetton, science fiction author of Red Moon Burning and The Wild Sands of Rotar

Last updated: Friday, 24th April 2020